Thirty-five years ago, Vietnamese marched into Phnom Penh, liberating Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge, who’d ostensibly liberated the same people a mere four years before. The Khmer Rouge’s short but devastating regime capitalized on the Cambodian people’s reverence for nation and authority; the same attributes that ancient kings harnessed to erect the mammoth temples at Angkor. Thirty-five years is a useful timespan to consider how Cambodian society continues to subsume individual identity and whether it can prevent future killing fields.
I recently visited a rural home near Pursat where my daughter Abby lives with an extended family while serving in the Peace Corps. Two parents, two children, and seven boarders share five rooms, outdoor cooking and sanitation facilities. All are industrious, earnest, and quiet. They maneuver through well-established routines and eat mostly in silence, tolerating my visitor’s banter but dismissing personal or political questions with nervous laughter.
Abby’s Cambodian mother and father survived the Khmer Rouge and a Thai refugee camp. They returned to their home village in 1991. Now, they rarely leave. Nor do they speak of that time. Instead, they speak of order and authority. They do not bemoan Cambodia’s ongoing struggles or question why this beautiful, fertile land is still one of the poorest on earth. These survivors appreciate the peace of Hun Sen’s reign and seek nothing beyond their simple plot.
Abby’s Cambodian brother is a 25 year-old high school physics teacher who sleeps in the same room as his parents. He owns a moto but little else. He uttered no words during my visit. He never countered his parents. Yet he occasionally flashed eyes at me while his parents spoke, intimating that not all values of the father are automatically transferred to the son.
Cambodia’s history centers around two seminal periods. Ancient Angkor dominated Southeast Asia for over four centuries circa 900 to 1300 AD, while the Khmer Rouge’s bloodshed occurred within four years of enforced isolation during the 1970’s. Before and after, Cambodia’s enjoyed brief periods of independence, but foreign influence or occupation by France, Thailand, Vietnam, and others, has been the norm.
Twelfth century Angkor Wat supported over a million people; it was the largest city in the world. While Europeans built gothic cathedrals taller, wider, and more delicate, Cambodian serfs dug ever larger moats and sculpted endless stone relief. Over four hundred years, Angkor’s techniques of construction and sculpture never changed; they just got bigger. Cambodian craftsmen replicated what they knew rather than stretch their capabilities.
Over the next seven centuries Europe experienced enlightenment, revolution, colonization, massive war, and finally social democratic states while Cambodia continued to be a subsistence society whose abundant rice enriched extortionist rulers. The French hailed Cambodians as the most obedient people in Southeast Asia, and rewarded their exemplary behavior with the highest taxes in their colonial domain.
Little wonder that beleaguered citizens embraced the Khmer Rouge’s promise of a native Cambodian state. They couldn’t foresee Khmer Rouge’s radical transformations: abolishing private property, money, religion, and family. Still, they abandoned their cities and lives on nothing more than a revolutionary order to obey. The most baffling image at the Tuol Sleng Prison Museum is a photograph of fleeing émigrés. Remarkable for what’s missing. The Cambodians carry few belongings. No armed soldier pushes the crowd. They march into the unknown without resistance.
In less than four years, the Khmer Rouge killed more than a million Cambodians, as if by eliminating a population equal to Angkor’s glory, the regime could erase history itself.
Which in some ways it has. Khmer Rouge atrocities are so grotesque they cannot be discussed. For the older generation, the pain is too great. The younger generation is unaware because Khmer Rouge is barely taught in school. It doesn’t fit into any narrative of Cambodia’s Angkor glory or its fundamental values of family, ancestors, and Buddhism.
Left to its own devices Cambodia might choose to forget the Khmer Rouge, and thereby risk repeating it. But one unanticipated consequence of the killing fields is the international attention Cambodia’s attracted since the atrocities were revealed. Thirty-five years after the fall, there are simply too many NGO’s, Lexus, Camry’s, and foreigners like Abby, for the country to ever be corralled by such an insular vision again.
Today’s older generation deserves to live out life in quiet peace. But the new generation has lively eyes. They honor parents and tradition, but also Google and pizza. Their challenge is to preserve Cambodia’s gentle nature without succumbing to submission.
Abby’s Cambodian Father with the house of his ancestors
Abby and her Cambodian mother at the village market
A formal portrait outside the village Pagoda